There is a motif in quite a few folk tales in which two people who have fallen in love are separated and one or both of them can not recognise the other when they meet again. Let me give you an example: In Cinderella and many of it’s variants, the Prince falls in love with Cinders at the first ball, spends all evening with her for the next two days often having “eyes for no one but her”, yet his method for identifying the mesmerising beauty who has won his heart is entirely dependant on her fitting the shoe that fell off her foot. In a whole bunch of the variants, when the step sisters cheat by cutting their toes off to make their feet small enough, HRH Charming doesn’t even seem to notice that he has the wrong woman and it takes a magical bird singing a warning rhyme for him to realise his mistake, twice, making him possibly the most obtuse idiot in all folk tale.
It’s not just lovers who suffer from face blindness, or prosopagnosia to give it it’s official name, In folktale world. Mixed sex pairs of siblings who are very fond of each other frequently exchange portraits, rings or other tokens, before one of them goes away for any length of time, and cannot be re-united without producing them as proof of identity.
Now, I have some sympathy since I struggle to recognise faces especially if I meet someone in a different context to that in which I have previously seen them. It is my firm belief that characters in films should remain in the same clothing throughout unless they change during a scene. Not that they have to change on camera of course, they can go behind a screen or in to another room, but they should be involved in continuous dialogue so I know who they are when they return looking like a different person. Nevertheless, my facial recognition fault is fairly mild and has certainly never extended to anyone I was hopeful of forming a long term relationship with after three nights of constant intimate communion, nor to any family members.
Since I know plenty of people who don’t seem to have a problem divining anyone’s identity by the arrangement of their facial features and aren’t phased when movie characters appear in random outfits from one scene to the next, I assume prosopagnosia is fairly rare. Indeed, it is only officially diagnosed in around 2% of the population. So I began to wonder if the story making petrie dish of medieval Europe had experienced an epidemic of some sort to bring about such widespread identification breakdown. A few instances could theoretically be accounted for by the rarity of spectacles amongst the general population, however, when I asked around to see what my storytelling colleagues and friends thought, the consensus of opinion was very surprising.
The historians who joined the conversation placed the blame squarely on clothing. During the middle ages social mobility was very limited. Each class and occupation had it’s own fairly tightly proscribed mode of dress, even to the extent that certain groups could not legally wear certain materials. Sumptuary laws prevented labourers, artisans, merchants, and even the lower nobility, from wearing silk, velvet, satin or silver. Cloth of gold and purple silk were reserved to the royal family. With one’s status so clearly marked by one’s apparel a simple change of costume could effectively put a person beyond notice in one direction or the other. In many situations it was considered poor etiquette to talk to, or even look at, someone who was more than one class above or below your own. So if your sibling travelled over the sea, made their fortune and returned, it might not be that you couldn’t recognise their face but that, on seeing their new posh duds, you would not even look upon their face until they had placed their proof of identity before your dutifully averted eyes.
Whilst this does justify the necessity of presenting tokens of proof in a great many stories, it still seems to me to come up short of giving an acceptable solution for why The Duke of Charmshire is happy to accept an entirely different woman as his hearts desire based only on her ability to put on a slipper. Was the concept of physical tokens of identity so ingrained in the society that we can understand his willingness to override the evidence of his own senses or is Cinders’ husband the most gormless man in all of fiction?
Well, if the shoe fits…